Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Complete music for cello and piano
Variations Concertantes, op. 17 [9:12]
Sonata no. 1 in B flat major, op. 45 [23:47]
Song without words, op. 109 [4:45]
Assai tranquillo [2:30]
Sonata no. 2 in D major, op. 58 [25:47]
Emanuel Gruber (cello); Arnon Erez (piano)
rec. Jerusalem Music Centre, 3-5 June 2009. DDD
DELOS DE 3415 [65:58]

Years ago I switched on my car radio in the middle of a work for cello and piano, and couldnít decide who the composer was. It sounded a bit like Beethoven; but then it didnít Ė too much frothy passage work. Maybe Mozart? No, a bit more oomph than that. It turned out to be one of the Mendelssohn cello sonatas.

Mendelssohnís cello and piano output comprises two Sonatas, the Variations Concertantes, an Assai tranquillo, and a late Song without Words. All this comes to about an hour of music, fitting nicely onto a CD. It is played here by a young Israeli cellist, Emanuel Gruber, with his regular duo partner Arnon Erez.

The current recording begins with the Variations. Where a grand piano is involved it will often overpower a cello, but with this duo it is the other way around. Emanuel Gruber seems reluctant to cede the melodic interest to his partner, even when the cello is clearly accompanying the piano. Arnon Erez compounds this tendency by the skill with which he recedes into the background. This is highly accomplished playing, but lacks the give and take that marks the best chamber music performance.

The first Sonata begins at a fairly brisk tempo, a little unyieldingly maintained. Again the playing of the duo is very clean, but together with the slightly rigid tempo there is a lack of dynamic variety. This gives a somewhat relentless feeling. There is a bit more dynamic shading in the Andante, where Emanuel Gruberís legato playing is eloquent; I felt he could have made more of some of the phrases. The final Allegro Assai opens in a placid mood, which soon gives way to brilliant episodes with plenty of interplay between the partners. Gruber and Erez perform this efficiently, but without much light and shade. I particularly felt that Gruber could have varied his tone production more by using different amounts of bow weight and varying its proximity from the bridge.

The Song without Words again receives a smooth and controlled performance; the mid-section could have been a bit more passionate. Technically, Gruberís legato is extremely impressive; his bow changes are beautifully smoothed over. Interpretively, however, I felt that he extends his phrases to the point of monotony. The second Sonata suffered from the same faults as the first, with the cello being over-dominant and the rhythms unyielding. The duoís sound is hampered by what sounds like a very dry acoustic, which robs Gruberís fine 1706 David Tecchler cello of tonal interest.

Christophe Coin and Patrick Cohen recorded these works in 1989 - released by Oiseau-Lyre in 1992. This was one of the earliest recordings of the Mendelssohn cello sonatas, and as far as I know the first to use a fortepiano. Coin and Cohen have a genuine chamber music partnership, each receding into the background to accompany the other as required. They also really dig into the works in a passionate way. Timings are slower, by almost 5 minutes in each of the sonatas; this suggests a more fleet but also more superficial approach on the part of Gruber and Erez. Although Coinís instrument is by an anonymous maker, he achieves far more tonal and dynamic variety than Gruber. A lot of this stems from his bowing, which concentrates less on achieving a perfect legato than on advancing the musical argument. Cohen and Coinís performances are more dramatic than Gruberís and Erezís, much better recorded and more musically satisfying.

I wish I could be more positive about this recording; both players are obviously considerable artists who have a feeling for Mendelssohn. Unfortunately their approach emphasises this composerís fluency and brilliance at the expense of his more substantial qualities. Gruber and Erez nail the notes with precision, but miss the soul behind them.

Guy Aron

Fluent and polished performances that donít dig deeply enough below the surface.